A "backdoor pilot" doesn't refer to some TWA navigator with an unusual fetish; it is a term used in the TV industry to describe the use of an established TV show to test the waters for a proposed new series. Confused? Here are some examples:
1. The Multi-cultural Brady Bunch Spin-off that Never Was
During the final season of The Brady Bunch, the Brady family generously relinquished most of a 30 minute episode in order to introduce their neighbors, Ken and Kathy Kelly (portrayed by Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy). The Kellys had adopted three boys "“ Matt, Dwayne, and Steve "“ in what must be the minimum amount of time required by California law. Sounds like a rather blah premise until you consider the "groundbreaking" 1970s twist: one of the boys was white, one was African-American, and one was Asian-American. Sherwood Schwartz hoped that Kelly's Kids would be picked up as a series, but the network passed.
5 More after the jump!
2. The Original (and more bitter) Empty Nest
Fans of The Golden Girls often rate the episode entitled "Empty Nests" as one of their least favorites. This episode featured only peripheral appearances by the four principals, and instead introduced us to previously-never-seen neighbors Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley, who were going through a marital crisis shortly after their college-aged daughter moved out. Empty Nest eventually did become a series, but only after some serious re-tooling. The producers decided that the original premise would have dissolved into constant bickering between Dooley and Moreno's characters, so they were dumped in favor of a widowed Richard Mulligan, whose adult daughters had moved back home. (Sort of made the nest not-so-empty, but why quibble over the little details?)
3. Tony Orlando goes Quiet
Once upon a time (specifically, the mid-1970s) Tony Orlando's career was on fire; along with Dawn "“ backing vocalists Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson "“ he hit number one on the Billboard pop charts three times. For three years, the trio also hosted a popular TV variety show that attracted the biggest names in show business. Around that same time, Bill Cosby was focusing on stand-up comedy, and often worked as an opening act for Orlando's Las Vegas shows. Flash forward to 1985, when The Cosby Show ruled the prime time airwaves, and Orlando couldn't even get a job on the oldies concert tour circuit. The Cos graciously tried to help out his old pal with an episode of The Cosby Show titled "Mr. Quiet," in which Orlando appeared as the head of the local community center. Later, Tony admitted that the reason this proposed pilot wasn't picked up as a series was, simply, because his performance "stunk."
4. Three Strikes for Who's the Boss
There's an old show biz adage that says "if you throw enough [censored] against the wall, sooner or later something will stick." The creators of Who's the Boss doggedly tried to make lightning strike twice (and thrice) with limited success. In one instance, Leah Remini "“ Samantha's best friend from Brooklyn who'd never been mentioned in previous shows "“ came to visit. She ended up with a modeling contract by the end of the episode, courtesy of agency owner Michael Learned. (Living Dolls, the resultant series, lasted only 16 episodes and is probably remembered best as the launching pad for future Academy Award winner Halle Berry.) Another episode pitted Fran Drescher and Donna Dixon against one another as spokesmodels for a line of pre-packaged Italian food. Charmed Lives, the sitcom ABC created from this equation, lasted a mere three episodes.
5. The Nanny gets a Makeover
Speaking of Fran Drescher, she hosted her own back door pilot in the "Chatterbox" episode of her sitcom, The Nanny. Tracy Nelson portrayed an aspiring actress trying to make ends meet. She was hired as a shampoo girl at the Chatterbox (Fran's favorite salon) owned by Patrick Cassidy, a single dad who seemed to need help raising his son. The show was little more than The Nanny set in a beauty parlor. CBS rejected the new series, deciding that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.
6. A Taste of Really Strong Medicine
The Whoopi Goldberg-produced Strong Medicine was one of the Lifetime network's most successful original series. They had managed to land a string of three former major network stars to star in the hospital drama: Janine Turner, Patricia Richardson and Rick Schroder. No wonder they got a bit cocky by Season Five and used one episode to launch First Response, an Emergency! clone about the trials and tribulations of paramedics on the job. First Response centered around Dr. Vanessa Burke, the head of the Rittenhouse Hospital trauma center, who happened to be an African-American orphan adopted by a white family. The family's natural daughter (Katie) was a former drug addict/juvenile offender who had allegedly turned her life around and was now an EMT (hired only because her adoptive big sister gave her a break). Viewers needed a blowtorch to cut through all the plot contrivances presented in this pilot, so it's no wonder the show was never picked up.
As you're watching the syndicated reruns of your favorite shows, keep an eye out for an episode that features very little on-screen time of the main stars. It just may have been the producers slipping a backdoor pilot in for your consideration. Let us know of any you've noticed that we haven't mentioned.